Steven Universe and Race

by criticalhit009

I came across this post recently which seems to be making the rounds on social media.* I appreciate the attempt to write a polemical piece calling out the inconsistencies of black female representation on Steven Universe. I do, however, take issue with some of the supporting arguments made within the piece itself, as it makes certain assumptions and mistakes that lessen its argument, and fails to acknowledge and address multiple aspects of the show in its narrow description of racial representation.

This piece will process the article chronologically, dipping in and out with commentary. Let’s start this analysis by dissecting what the author terms the “business end” of the piece: racially coding many of the characters in Steven Universe. This is a particularly difficult thing to do, as many of the characters and their fusions are Gems, inorganic beings that form their bodies through hard light projections. I mention in my presentation that because Gems literally construct their bodies, they also by extension construct their gender identities as well. Race, however, is not as easy to identify. On a technical level, the Gems of Steven Universe defy racial categories as they are literally gemstone aliens from space. (Notably, the show is slowly delving more and more into the class systems of Homeworld as a key means of oppression in Gem society.) Now, in terms of representation in how viewers perceive the show, there are certain Gems (namely Garnet) that present distinctive certain forms of black culture, such as fashion and dance. Trying to sort every Gem into a racial category, however, is pretty much impossible, as all the show’s gems simply do not align easily according to categories of race. Such “coding” is done by the fandom community with factoring qualities such as representation and relatability. This is illustrated when the author notes he will “ discuss Pearl as primarily white, but occasionally Asian”, illustrating the kind of slippage at play. To further compound matters, there are other black female characters, one of whom, Kiki, just got a dedicated episode about them, that the author fails to mention.

Next, the author engages in positionality, saying that “I do not care about white people’s responses to this post. At all.” In response, I must also engage in a kind of positionality, an acknowledge I am a white, female academic-in-training who researches animation, including  Steven Universe. While the author may not care for my opinion, I hope others engage with my piece as well. The author also links to a twitter thread that lays out some ground rules, however, as of this writing, the thread is impossible to access due to the author’s twitter being private. It’s right and important that the author reserve that personal space, especially considering how bad twitter can be. Perhaps Storify could help preserve that linked twitter thread and make it accessible?

The author’s main argument is that Steven Universe does a “poor job of displaying Blackness, Black women, and Black femmes, both in their own rights, and in relation to the non-Black and non-Black coding characters around them.” Again I would tend to agree, though the purpose of this piece is to clarify some of the mistakes made both in reasoning and information that weaken the author’s argument. The author notes that there are no black women writers for the show is correct, though I would like to note the diverse creative staff in writing (writers such as Hellen Jo), animation (such as layout artists like Lamar Abrams), and voice acting (such as Estelle as Garnet).

The author’s analysis begins with the first batch of Steven Universe episodes, particularly noting Amethyst’s slob personality. While I agree that Amethyst is a “lazy, slobbish, loud, childish Gem who literally eats garbage for fun,” I want to emphasize that these traits do not negatively define here, but rather make her endearing, and are deeply tethered to her childhood as a ‘homegrown’ Gem from Earth. As Gems don’t need to eat (and some Gems like Pearl have trouble with the concept to begin with), Amethyst’s love for devouring anything emerges from her love of Earth, including its food and culture, which leads to a lot of bonding with Steven, and particularly ties into her rich character development as she struggles with her identity as a ‘faulty’ Kindergartner as the show progresses. Amethyst is a lot different from the nearly one note character she began with at the start of the show.

The author moves on to analyzing Garnet and her character design. Garnet’s style is clearly based in African-American fashion (Afro hair style) and yes, has large hips. While Garnet has prominent hips, she is never objectified, and owns her body and its power, much like many SU characters. Her design is more a nod to Afro-Futurism than anything else.

I want to address the author’s description of Garnet’s femininity, and how black coded characters (before reading this, I did not realize Amethyst was coded black) in general dip Pearl when dancing for fusion. I think this is a really good observation (who dips, and who is dipped), though I wonder about the limitations and potential of dips and throws in fusion dances in regards to gender. As Steven Universe pushes the boundaries of gender, at what point to gendered dance moves cease to have such connotations?

While a similar observation is made between Garnet’s fight with Jasper, I would argue in this case that Garnet’s expressions of sexuality and femininity come from Ruby and Sapphire (the Gems in love that fuse into Garnet) have finally been reunited after a painful separation. (Garnet is singing during this scene, triumphantly proclaiming how she is stronger than Jasper because of the love that literally brings her together.)

This brings us to the authors notes on Sardonyx, which are much more problematic. There are issues of interpretation that are more murky that I disagree with (coding Jasper as “blacker” than garnet, when I don’t think she’s coded as black as all.) Then there are sheer mistakes in his writing. While I have never heard the phrase “hime laugh”, the trope in anime has been identified as the “Noblewomans Laugh, but more specifically, it is a direct reference to a show that is incredibly influential to the show: Revolutionary Girl Utena. (See this article for more information on just how influential Utena is on Steven Universe.)

Because this laugh is a direct reference, taking inspiration from Utena, I find it difficult to claim that this laugh characterizes Sardonyx as a “‘high-class’ black” accurate. In addition, the idea that this reference is a kind of laugh usually reserved for someone “dark in some fashion” I have not been able to confirm.

There are smaller issues of interpretation I find murkier than what the author claims. The author notes a “southern accent”, and while, yes, there are “y’all”s in the script, but the execution is straight up broadway/vaudeville, as Sardonyx’s character amplifies the “show-off” aspects Pearl and Garnet both have (Pearl because she has insecurities about her self-worth, Garnet because she is proud.) The author also connects Sardonyx’s fashion to early black performers, who relied on the colorism in society for their acceptance. While there is the connection to vaudeville in terms of the voice acting (the aforementioned broadway-style vocal performance given by actual theatre star Alexia Khadime), Sardonyx wearing a suit does not mean that she is de facto a representation of early black performs in vaudeville. Again, Garnet’s Afro-futurism shines through Sardonyx, as the character design is clearly inspired by Janelle Monáe, a pioneer right now of Afro-Futurism both in song and in style. While the author’s overall assertion that the show’s preference for Sardonyx over Sugilite is unfair, the overall supporting argument for this claim is murky, and ignores the specific and direct influences that guide Sardonxy’s personality and design.

This leads to the perhaps the article’s least helpful section: directly comparing fusion to sex. Fusion is not a direct metaphor for sex. It certainly could represent sex as one of the many things it can allude to (emotional connection, love, healthy/toxic relationships) but it is not a direct metaphor, and indeed, the whole show would not work that way if it did. (Think of all the times the underage children Connie and Steven have fused.) In general, fusion is a physical representation of the relationship individuals have with one another – a physical existence rather than an act or event itself.

Technically speaking, whenever Gems fuse, it’s a relationship that is mutually agreed upon. Even one of the most contentious fusions, Lapis fusing with Jasper, was a mutually agreed upon relationship. Now, Lapis was deceptive in what she intended where such a relationship would go (hint: the bottom of the ocean), and the toxicity of it still lingers, but the reality is no one can fuse with someone who doesn’t want to fuse. Consent is a necessity.

Yet, the article posits that Pearl rapes Garnet. On a logical level on how fusion works, that isn’t possible (you need consent for the fusion to occur). But this isn’t to say Steven Universe ignores the consequences when Pearl lies to Garnet in order to fuse with her, which is a huge, emotional betrayal. On an emotional level, there is an entire mini-arc dedicated to the fallout of Pearl’s deception, dealing with their separation and avoidance, Pearl’s inferiority complex (arising certainly from here assigned status, a lower-class minion of the Homeworld empire, built for servitude), the importance of fusion for Garnet, and more. While there is definitely an argument to be made in how the 11 minute format is further and further constricting Steven Universe, forcing quick (and subsequently sometimes cheap) happy endings in time for credits to roll, trying to articulate the concept of rape within the framework of Steven Universe is not a clear cut issue, and relies on narrow assumptions of what the show’s concepts of fluid gender identity, body composition, fusion, and more.

Problems of analysis aside, Steven Universe‘s issues with representation need to be addressed, and I appreciate the article’s attempt to address them.  This piece is also not meant to ‘clamp down’ on the discourse. I started writing this piece with the aim at rebuking everything that was said. Honestly, as someone who presented at an academic conference on how Revolutionary Girl Utena deeply influences Steven Universe, I immediately began writing when I saw the incorrect assessment of the Nanami laugh reference. But the reality is the show does have its problems – but so does this article.

After the piece was originally published, Smokey Garnet was introduced, Steven and Amethyst’s fusion. The character’s introduction has brought a lot more questions of representations into the mix, but that can be left for another day. In fact, there is still so much more that can be said about black female representation in the show that the author fails to even mention. Kiki and Jenny Pizza are character’s that could be discussed more, as well as the incredible diverse voice cast for the show. I look forward to the next part of the article that tackles Bismuth (which has never materialized), as I too am incredibly disappointed with the treatment of her character. With Steven Universe, the conversation has only begun.

*After I began writing this piece, this post about the author was brought to my attention, and contains some quite alarming information about this person. Take that for what you will.